Clocked in: employees at work in the Philco-Ford electronics factory in Taiwan, 1969. Credit: PARIS MATCH/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

When production went mass: how factories changed the world

Invented in Britain, perfected in America and super-sized by the Soviet Union and China, the factory has shaped modern history.

Factories are ancient, older than capitalism. Imagine a weaver in Mesopotamia who hires workers, provides them with tools and raw material (the capital). This entrepreneur would be recognised by Karl Marx himself as a “capitalist” since he derives “surplus value” from selling the cloth. Yet no one would say that Mesopotamia was capitalist, even though there were 13,200 weavers in its main city, Ur. In 15th-century Florence, over a third of the workforce produced wool for wages. The wool would be imported from England or Spain, and then sold all over Italy, the Balkans and the Levant, but no one has ever argued that the industrial revolution started in Florence.

The typical unit of production remained the small workshop run by a single artisan helped by apprentices, using simple tools. Big factories, the “behemoth”, whose history is delineated ably by Joshua Freeman in his fine book, are a recent invention. They started in Great Britain in the 18th century, although the majority were small.

The factory system grew out of a new product, cotton, at a time when Europeans wore wool or flax, and silk if they were rich. Cotton was linked to trade because it could not grow in Europe. So large factories went together with empires, colonies and slave plantations – in other words, with globalisation. Increase in production required not only innovations such as the spinning machine but also co-ordinating the activity of dozens or hundreds of workers who were expected to start at the same time, day in, day out. And since workers did not own clocks, bells announced the beginning of the shift. In this sense the new behemoths were like churches calling the workers not to prayers, but to work.

Factory discipline could be better enforced if workers were under constant surveillance inside a building instead of letting them work at home. Yet without lighting one could work only during the day. Lighting enabled an increase in the length of the working day and soon factories, unlike churches, were operating day and night.

The American factory system started in mill towns such as Lowell in Massachusetts, named after the industrialist Francis Cabot Lowell, and widely regarded as the cradle of the American industrial revolution. Many of the workers were young women who came from the countryside. They lived in boarding houses with four to six sharing a bedroom (though life on the farm was just as crowded). There was the occasional strike and resistance, since conditions changed regularly. Eventually the constant supply of foreign workers ensured that the owners kept the upper hand.

As in a kind of relay race, the United States took the baton from Britain in the mid-19th century and ran with it for the following 100 years, soon becoming the leading industrial power. By the end of the First World War, manufacturing output in the US was greater than in Britain, Germany and France combined.

It is one of the more valuable aspects of Freeman’s book that he also deals with the mythology surrounding the factory system, as well as its artistic expressions and the social struggles it generated. When the steam engine took centre stage it was believed that machines were opening the doors to a new civilisation, an era of bounty, freedom and national power. Factories were associated with the idea of progress. The countryside was backward: Marx famously condemned the “idiocy of rural life”. For artists, as well as social critics, however, the big factory often meant misery, social conflict and ecological degradation. They were not entirely wrong. Until the end of the 19th century the consumer society was barely discernible, although it would soon become the basis for the wide consensus behind capitalism.

Henry Ford’s factories constituted a major innovation, not just for his paternalistic outlook (workers had to lead exemplary lives) or for his extensive use of the assembly line but because he paid his staff high wages: a mass market required prosperous workers. By then, as Freeman explains, steel not cotton had become central to the economy: “The formation of US Steel as the largest corporation ever created added to the sense that steel had to be a matter of public concern, not strictly a private endeavour.”

This is what constituted “Americanism” for Lenin, one of the champions of Soviet industrialisation and an admirer of Frederick Winslow Taylor, the leading proponent of the assembly line system and of the rational exploitation of human power. “We must organise the study and teaching of the Taylor system,” declared Lenin, “and… adapt it to our purposes.”

By 1930 Tractorstroi, near Stalingrad, had become the largest factory in the Soviet Union. In 1932, following an agreement with Ford, it was overtaken by a car plant, the Gorky Automobile Factory, erected in Nizhny Novgorod and employing 32,000 workers (a quarter ofthem young women). Conditions in these Soviet behemoths were better than in factories in the early phase of industrialisation in England or America, and certainly better than in the countryside. In the “workers’ state” it was better to be a factory worker than a peasant (even if we discount the horrors of collectivisation).

By the 1950s and 1960s, although large factories continued to be built in the United States, the era of the behemoth was coming to a close: de-industrialisation set in. Factories would move gradually to Asia; first to Japan and, over the last 30 years, to China, while what Freeman calls Soviet “gigantism” marched on.

In China Mao’s opponents won: it did not matter who ran the factory (“whether the cat is white or black as long as he catches mice”) provided production was maximised. Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, where Foxconn (notorious for a spate of suicides among its workers) is located, became the fastest-rising urban conurbation in the world: from 321,000 inhabitants in 1980 to almost 12 million in 2016.

Today only 8 per cent of Americans work in factories against 43 per cent of Chinese. And where once Westerners produced mainly for Westerners, many Asian factories now produce for the West; assembling trainers in Vietnam for companies such as Reebok and Adidas, and electronics components in China.

The one major criticism to be levelled at Freeman’s otherwise fascinating book is that it is too US-focused. British industrialisation is there merely as a path-breaker for the United States. And while China/Foxconn gets pride of place in the final chapter, it is as if the large British, German, French and Italian factories never existed: no Volkswagen, no Fiat, no Renault, none of the white consumer goods made in German and Italian factories. And there is virtually nothing on Japan (no Sony, no Toyota).

Meanwhile, in the United States today the most valued companies are in the retail sector, either physical stores as with Walmart or online as with Amazon, or in software, with the likes of Google and Microsoft. Here America dominates, but no one knows for how long. In China the internet conglomerate Tencent, one of the largest corporations in the world – protected by the communist firewall – is supreme. Behind Tencent loom other Chinese internet giants such as and Alibaba. There is plenty for behemoths such as Facebook, Netflix and Google to worry about. 

Behemoth: a History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World
Joshua B Freeman
W W Norton, 427pp, £22

Donald Sassoon is emeritus professor of comparative European history at Queen Mary, University of London

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war

Show Hide image

“He keeps asking me, is it sad to be an old woman?”: sparring with the French director Claire Denis

The provocative auteur talks to Ryan Gilbey about sex at 71, her obsession with Juliette Binoche and why his questions are “maybe a little bit pretentious.”

The 71-year-old French director Claire Denis is pocket-sized, but then so is a grenade. Welcoming me into her London hotel room, where a single lamp provides the only resistance against the fading light, she gets straight down to business. First there is the English-language title of her latest film, Let the Sunshine In. “I’m very unhappy with it.” She wanted A Bright Sun In. There is scarcely time to point out to her that this brisk, playful movie, about a middle-aged Parisian artist (Juliette Binoche) searching for love, is undamaged by the mistranslation. Denis has moved on, and is pondering the post-screening Q&A session she’ll take part in later. “I hate Q&As! You see a film, you don’t want to ask questions. All those stupid explanations.” She touches her throat, still tender from an operation three weeks ago. “The doctor removed a virus.” Really? You mean a cyst, or a tumour? “No!” she says crossly. “A virus.” Then she softens: “It was like coral from the ocean.” There is an odd glint in her eye, fearful but unmistakably titillated.

That look is there in her work, too. No other living director, not even Pedro Almodóvar or Catherine Breillat, has quite her knack for untangling the mysteries of sexual desire, or the role played in it by gender, race and class. It is the warmth, inquisitiveness and mischief in her films that make them so seductive. She is not above being shocking, as she was in the revenge thriller Bastards, set in a world of sexual exploitation where unspeakable acts are committed with a corncob, or Trouble Every Day, in which horny vampires nip out for a bite after sex. She is at her best, though, in a gentler or more thoughtful register.

Two fine films at either end of her career have dissected the tensions between white colonialists and black Africans. Her 1988 debut, Chocolat, set in colonial Cameroon, drew on her own childhood as the daughter of a civil servant; the family moved around French West Africa before Denis returned in her teens to Paris, her birthplace, to finish her education. She revisited the subject in her 2010 drama White Material, starring Isabelle Huppert as the owner of a coffee plantation in an unnamed turbulent African country. Unable to see that she is part of the problem, she continues making coffee while the nation burns.

Denis’s favourite among her films might be 35 Shots of Rum, an elliptical study of people of African descent living in a Parisian suburb. She retracts the remark. “I don’t have a favourite. Which is yours? Tell me.” That’s easy. Beau Travail (1999) which transposes Billy Budd (both the Melville novel and the Benjamin Britten opera) to a Foreign Legion post in Djibouti. Like much of her work, it has little dialogue. Why give an actor a monologue when character can be more elegantly expressed in shots of him fastidiously ironing his uniform or hurling his body around an empty dancefloor to “The Rhythm of the Night” by Corona?

Denis swoons. “Ah, Beau Travail. We had Benjamin Britten playing on these tiny loudspeakers. I was sleeping two hours a night. We were on the edge! It was great. I loved my 15 guys. And the real Foreign Legion wanted to stop us.” She mimes someone peering through binoculars. “They thought we were shooting a gay porno movie.”

You can understand the error. Much of the fascination of Beau Travail stems from its unusual gender dynamic: it’s an intensely homoerotic reverie in which many of the core personnel (not just Denis but her cinematographer and editor) happen to be female. As far back as the 1996 Nénette et Boni, about a young pizza-seller smitten with a female baker, Denis was complicating the audience’s point-of-view. We hear the oversexed fellow recounting his breathless fantasies, most of which revolve around the things he wants to do to the buxom baker with his “big French stick”. What we see, however, is an extended shot of his bare torso, the camera admiring the magnificent slopes of his shoulders and the play of light on his mahogany skin. The desirer has become the desired.

As her latest film demonstrates, Denis is an equal opportunities sensualist. Let the Sunshine In, wordier than we have come to expect from her, is an unabashed celebration of Binoche. “What brings everything together is Juliette’s frankness and strength. We were having lunch one day and I caught a glimpse of her cleavage. I said, ‘Juliette, I want to show what a sexy woman you are. Every shot in the film I am going to show your cleavage. Your legs, your feet, your hands, a short skirt, high heels, leather jacket.’ She is sexier than any young girl on the red carpet.”

Denis, too, is wearing a leather jacket. Her vanilla hair is full of kinks, her tiny buttonhole eyes darting and alert. She sniffs the air. “Am I dreaming or can I smell a joint?” She squints at the window, which looks out onto a dingy Soho back-street, and inhales deeply. “Such a nice smell…”

I steer her back to Binoche. The pair went straight from finishing Let the Sunshine In to their next collaboration, the intimate intergalactic story High Life, which is exactly the way Denis likes it. She can’t bear letting go of her actors. “In life I am maybe not possessive enough. But in film – so much.” Directing Huppert in White Material, she was forever touching the actor’s hair, petting her almost, telling her: “I want to take you home with me.” She hates it when someone she has worked with appears in another director’s movie. “I get jealous. You spend two months looking so closely at them that you can tell if a single eyelash is out of place. Then they are gone.”

 Sensual: Denis with leading lady Juliette Binoche. Credit: Francois G. Durand/Getty

High Life, Denis’s first movie in English as well as her first with special effects, throws her together with another cinematic phenomenon – the actor Robert Pattinson, currently doing a bang-up job of distancing himself from the Twilight series that made his name. Pattinson, a long-time Denis fan, has called High Life her “craziest” film and described the director as a “punk”. She looks aghast. “My craziest? No. His, maybe. Well, there is some craziness in it but I won’t tell you where. Yes, Robert said many times he was afraid because I was like a punk. I am a simple person. I just try to communicate simply.” High Life also brought her into the orbit of Zadie Smith and her husband Nick Laird. “They didn’t write anything,” she explains. “I met with them because I wanted more than just a translation of the French script. But they felt there was no space for their own vision.” (At the time of writing, Smith and Laird are still listed as its co-writers on IMDb and Wikipedia.) The movie will feature music by the British band Tindersticks, whose frontman, Stuart Staples, has been working with Denis on and off for years. My suggestion that their gorgeous scores are the glue between her movies prompts her angriest objection yet.

“Glue? No, it is not glue! Glue holds things together. Music is there to be like the soul.”

I say that I meant it in the same way that Nino Rota’s music connects Fellini’s films.

She sits back in her chair, eyeing me suspiciously. “Hmm. I will ask Stuart. But it is maybe a little bit pretentious.”

What we can agree on is that Let the Sunshine In explores a subject overlooked by most cinema: the role of love and sex in the lives of older women. While Denis was shooting the film, her mother died at the age of 94. “She was very clear-minded, still interested in sex and attraction.” One night, she fell out of bed and Denis had to enlist a strapping young Italian from a nearby pizza joint – it could be a scene from one of her films – to come to the rescue. He scooped the old woman up in his arms and slipped her back into bed as though sliding a pizza into the oven. “Once he was gone, my mother looked up and said, ‘He was so good-looking!’”

Is it harder for women to express their sexuality as they get older? Denis thinks not. “It is worse sometimes for men. They are so afraid to not get a hard-on.” We can always use Viagra, I suggest. She scoffs. “That’s no fun. Better that I use a piece of wood or buy a sex toy. I think it’s humiliating for a man to take Viagra. It’s so good to be together as a couple and both of you can feel the hard-on going and coming back and going again. The smell of sex coming in, coming out.”

She has been married once and is now divorced. The ring she wears was given to her by “the man I live with. The man I love.” They have no children. “I decided at 39 I didn’t want to be a mother. No regrets, no crying. Maybe because my own mother was not so happy to be one. She told me, ‘You don’t need to be a mother!’ She was so free.”

Only when she sees a photograph of herself does Denis realise she is ageing. “Inside, not at all.” I ask if she notices that she is treated any differently now she is 71. “Sometimes when I’m walking or riding my bicycle, I’ll hear a guy whistle and then he passes me and sees my face and says, ‘Oh, sorry!’” She laughs. “Maybe from the back I’m better.” And is she happy? “With getting older? It’s a disaster. It’s a wreck. To be able to stay up for three nights without sleep, to get so drunk you are in a coma – these things I miss the most. On the other hand, my body is able to move, I still have feelings and I’m making films.”

She has to prepare for the dreaded Q&A now. The PR assistant hovers nearby. “I overheard something about joints and Viagra,” he says. “Claire, were you incriminating yourself?”

She jabs a finger in my direction like a scolded child trying to shift the blame. “He kept asking me, ‘Is it sad to be an old woman?’”

I protest that this wasn’t quite how I phrased it. “You raised the question many times,” she says, sniggering naughtily.

“Well, you’re not so young either. And you will suffer, too.” She takes my hand in hers, which is warm and firm, and musters her sweetest smile. “So fuck you,” she says. 

Let The Sunshine In is released on 20 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge